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Exploring Primary Sources: Lyman T. Johnson Exercise

This guide contains the materials and activities used for a class exercise on Lyman T. Johnson, the first African American to attend the University of Kentucky.


Lyman T. Johnson gave multiple oral history interviews, from the 1970s to 1990s, which can be found on SPOKEdb, the Louie B. Nunn Center’s database. His own perspective is especially valuable, not only to see the other side of the issue, which thus far has been presented only from the university’s point of view, but also to understand the context of the case. These snippets from Johnson’s June 24, 1991 interview describe his reasons for pursuing graduate school at the University of Kentucky, the Day Law preventing school integration, and the aftermath of the court decision.


  1. Brainstorm. List 10-20 words or phrases about the documents/items. (Start with the details of the document, like topic, names, publication, etc. What do you find interesting? Strange? Do you find anything appealing or disturbing? Things you don’t understand or are unfamiliar with?)
  2. Articulating Problems. Formulate 2-4 possible problems that could be developed from the above list of words and description of materials. (Problems can be found by looking for tensions between ideas, conflicts between your own experience and what the text/image presents, assumptions underlying the arguments of the text/item, or if you notice any gaps or missing information overlooked by the source).
  3. Posing Fruitful Questions. List 2-4 open-ended questions for one problem that could lead to more in-depth research.
  4. What is at Stake? Thinking about the description, brainstorming list, problems, and questions, write 2-5 sentences answering the following: So what? Why does this matter? Why would someone care about this document and why?

Lyman T. Johnson interview excerpts

June 24, 1991 — Interview with Lyman T. Johnson, Anne Braden Oral History Project

(6:00) JOHNSON: And so, uh, what I did, I guess what you have reference to, is I did go back to, I go to the University of Kentucky.

I: Um-hm.

(8:00) JOHNSON: Well, uh, go up to, uh, U-, U K and take, um, a summer course, uh, two maybe, uh, three classes. Three, three, that would be summer ses-, session. I had, had taken summer sessions, uh, over at, uh, Michigan and at Wisconsin, in addition to what I had wh-- when I started, see. And that's when, uh, uh, really, when I went up, when I chose to go for that refresher work to the University of Kentucky. I picked Kentucky to make a test case on why they wouldn't admit, uh, Negro students.

I: Right.

JOHNSON: And when they refused my application, then I brought on the big guns and, uh, sued the hell out of them.

(17:00) JOHNSON: Now, uh, all of, uh, all, all everybody's saying, back on the University of Kentucky, is, uh, I, uh, I wound up there in 1948. And they put me out because they had a, a law, state law, saying Negro and white students couldn't go to school together in the state of Kentucky, public school, high school, private, parochial, or, or, or whatnot, public. And, uh, that law was passed in 1903.

I: So you all mounted the first real challenge to that Day Law, right?

JOHNSON: That's right.

I: And what, would you say that there was very much going on in the way of, uh, racial equality?


(78:00) JOHNSON: You see, now, I, I went up there raised hell at the University of Kentucky, won my case, went to school up there. Thugs would burn crosses on the campus there to fr--, frighten me away. I didn't, didn't, didn't, didn't, didn't pay them any attention. Just walked right on through them and everything. And, uh, after me, thirty, thirty students went in with me that summer, thirty Negro students that first summer, and Negro students have been up there, uh, going to school ever since. Um, I guess, two hundred, three hundred, maybe five hundred black students going to school up there now.

I: Um-hm.

JOHNSON: And it's, it's a, it's an established right. Uh, 1949, th--, this is what the Courier Journal said in an editorial: "It is commendable that the University of Kentucky, that was so gravely humiliated in 1949, now, thirty years later, to the day--

I: Um-hm.

(79:00) JOHNSON: --calls up the man at whose hands the humiliation was dished out, Lyman Johnson--

I: Um-hm.

JOHNSON: --and gives him, offers, offers to give him an honorary doctor of letters degree--

I: Right.

JOHNSON: --on the strength of what he did back there thirty years ago." Said, "It is commendable that the university has come around to recognize what was at stake, and will give the gentleman an honorary degree on the basis of that. And it is just as commendable that Mr. Johnson, who holds no grudges against the University, will accept it. We commend both."

I: Hmm. Hmm.

JOHNSON: Now, that's, that's sort of what, uh, what I think is, uh, h-, h-, has come to me.

(80:00) Now, if you notice, all, all of these things were my idea. Uh, I have lived long enough to, to see them come around. To say, "Lyman, you're somebody."